A Broad Socio-economic Impact on Penang is to be Expected from Climate Change


MULTIPLE CLIMATE HAZARD indices have categorised Malaysia’s Northern Region – Penang, Perlis, Kedah and Perak – as “middle” for its vulnerability to drought and flood risks (Yusuf and Francisco, 2009). But how exactly will extreme weather events impact Penang, socio-economically?


High temperatures, along with low humidity and rainfall, contribute to heatwaves and droughts. Reduction in soil moisture amplifies hot weather extremes, leading to even hotter and drier conditions. It was no surprise then that the drought of 2016 caused a water supply deficit in Penang (Dermawan, 2020). Alarmed, the State Government resorted to 11 cloud seeding operations costing approximately RM459,000 (MMD, 2020).

Worryingly, Sungai Muda – Penang’s main water source – has also dropped below the critical level of 1.5m (Dermawan, 2020). In the event of an extended drought, Kedah – where the river is located – may have to limit the amount of raw water entering Penang’s rivers. This can potentially harm the state’s agricultural activities. Paddy planting is feared to be the worst affected sector since water is crucial in the early phases of rice growth.

Disasters are a costly business, and between 1998 and 2018, these cost Malaysia a staggering sum of RM8bil.

Read also: Urgent Need for a More Effective Disaster Management and Prevention Regime

Climate change also increases risks associated with diseases and pests (Chamhuri, 2014). In rice farming, common issues encountered are bacterial infestation (Ramli, 2019). Crops experiencing abiotic stress in response to climate change would be even more susceptible to diseases (Kumar et al., 2015). Aggravating the problem further, the change in climate affords pathogens to evolve rapidly by reducing their incubation periods, thereby increasing the likelihood of spread to naive and vulnerable hosts (Sutherst et al., 2011; Santini and Ghelardini, 2015).

It is projected that from 2013 to 2030, Penang will experience reduction in yield during its main season as a result of increased maximum and minimum temperatures during the period of rice growth (Vaghefi et al., 2013). Based on climate scenarios generated by the Malaysian Meteorological Department, farmers will see a revenue loss of 67% from 2020 to 2029, 88% from 2050 to 2059, and 127% from 2090 to 2099, as a result of global warming (Firdaus, 2013).

It is similarly predicted that the rice industry will witness an annual economic loss of RM162.53mil, stemming from a 0.36 t/ha loss caused by a 2°C temperature increase (Vaghefi et al., 2013; Tang, 2019).

Aquaculture activities will not be spared either (Hamdan, Othman and Kari, 2015). On the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, it is found that increased temperature will diminish the habitat of the Indian mackerel. A decline of the species will affect it as a major food source of those living in the area (Kaschner et al., 2016; Ku Kassim, 2020).

But those who are the hardest hit will be the B40 households. As the local economy’s landscape changes to adapt to future climate patterns, the B40s will struggle with daily living costs; and those involved in the primary sector especially, will be prone to heat-related illnesses, inevitably reducing work capacity and labour productivity (UNDP, 2016). The affected sectors in Penang include agriculture, manufacturing, construction, utilities, transport, public services, etc. (DOSH, 2016).

Flash Floods

Based on the annual rainfall anomaly in the northern part of the Peninsula, an emerging trend of increasing rainfall was discovered between 2003 and 2015 (MMD, 2017). Since the 1990s, the annual rainfall per hour in Penang has increased six-fold from an average of 31mm to 180mm (Johari, 2019).

Photo: Loes Kieboom©123RF.COM

In addition, the floods in 2017 saw devastation in 100 areas and 1,000 victims being displaced. The State was overwhelmed once more in November that same year, with flood levels reaching 0.3m from heavy rainfall and high tide (Yaakob, 2017). This time almost 100,000 households were uprooted, which exposed them to a host of water-borne diseases (Awani, 2017), and almost paralysed the State.

Rising Sea Levels

Seberang Perai, where the State’s intensive agricultural activities take place, faces the highest risk of being submerged in seawater by 2050 should coastal flood events become a common occurrence (Climate Central, 2020).

As land become scarcer and space a priced commodity, the high proportion of B40 households living in flood-prone areas like Seberang Perai Utara will not have the financial means to relocate to higher grounds (Wade and Jennings, 2015) (Penang Institute, 2019) (Devaraj, 2018).

Inevitably, the government will have to bear the brunt of immediate economic impact. This includes the direct financial cost incurred from damage to homes and infrastructure, disaster recovery and mitigation costs, along with victim-related compensation for deaths, work injuries and long-term healthcare (Doerr and Santin, 2017).

Disasters are a costly business, and between 1998 and 2018, these cost Malaysia a staggering sum of RM8bil (CFE-DM, 2019). To buttress Penang against future impacts of climate change, building up the State's capacity and bolstering public resilience, while putting in place urgent mitigation measures, are progressive steps forward.


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